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Sun Apr 23 2017: Snow Monkeys of Hoth

Because we checked in late last night, we didn't get a chance to properly explore our guest-house. It's actually quite a nice place. Too bad we're not staying very long.

It looks like our guest house is also used for conferences and business meetings

We dawdle a little bit getting out, partly because we got in so late last night, but also, it's too cold in the morning to ride

Riding out of Yamanouchi, we pass by a pretty temple with cherry blossoms.

I'm feeling pretty smug these days because sakura season is typically two weeks from the moment the flowers blossom to the time they fall off the trees. However, we've been surrounded by cherry blossoms on our ride from the south all the way back to north for three weeks now! :D Our plan is working perfectly. Except for that brief time we were up in the ski hills of Hakuba...

The forest roads just outside of Yamanouchi. They don't look as foreboding as the one we took last night

We picked Yamanouchi as a stopping point last night because it was close to this place, Jigokudani

Tucked into the valley created by the Yokoyu River, Jigokudani is also known as:

The Snow Monkey Onsen! As we walk through the village, there are lots of monkeys up in the trees, on the rocks around us, everywhere!

So, the snow monkey onsen is famous for specific tribe of macaque monkeys who live here, roughly 160 of them. We've seen many monkeys on our travels who splash and play around in water, but the snow monkeys in this region are special. They've learned to survive and thrive in the bitter winters of the Nagano Prefecture by soaking in the natural hot springs of Jigokundani, which translated means "Hell Valley" due to all its geo-thermal activity underneath.

No other species of monkey has exhibited this learned behaviour, and the tribe passes this onsen-habit down to all of its offspring. They are fascinating subjects for anthropologists.

Lots of monkeys hanging around the pool, lots of grooming happening, but no spa action here.

Snow Monkey Onsen is popular for one single thing: seeing snow monkeys lounging in the hot springs, eyes closed in relaxation, while their fur covered heads are coated with a light dusting of snow, which also happens to be gently falling, picture-perfect, from the sky all around them. You can probably find this image on the Internet or an issue of National Geographic. It's an iconic picture.

I'm not going to post it here, because we didn't see this. We are here at the completely wrong time of year. It's mid-spring, temperatures are warming up. The last thing that a fur-covered, hot-blooded mammal wants to do is submerge himself in boiling water.

"You want me to do what?! Do you *know* how hot I am wearing this?!?"

I think most of the tourists who are visiting know this, but one can hope, right? Cameras idly snap pictures of baby macaques clinging to their mothers. Monkeys grooming each other. Lazing around in the sun. But no monkeys in the hot water.

There's an air of general disappointment. Us too, to be honest.

And then the miraculous happens:

I guess this guy has poor circulation or something. He slowly slips into the onsen without even a splash

The crowd goes crazy. Cellphones come out, SLR shutters go off like Kim Kardashian just walked in the room, and people are jockeying around to get the best angle to take a picture of this one tiny monkey sitting in a pool. Me too, to be honest.

I look at the serene monkey in the water. And then at the excitable crowd climbing all over themselves and wonder, who are the real monkeys here, really?

I shove a little girl out of the way so I can get a better shot.

Another macaque joins in, and the level of excitement in the crowd is too much. Gasps and oohs and aahs. So funny.

I'll photoshop in the falling snow later on in post-production...

Show's over, folks. Go home now.

We are always interested in seeing the reality behind famous pictures. Like seeing thousands of tourists all trying to capture a solitary and serene shot of the setting sun in Santorini, or the hordes of people taking a peaceful portrait of the Angkor Watt reflecting off a pond in Cambodia.

Here, when the monkeys don't come to the onsen, the staff have to bribe them with food to make the tourists happy...

Sad. But totally understandable, judging by everyone's reactions when they finally see a monkey in the water... These are paying customers and their Facebook/Instagram/blog demands a picture of a monkey in the pool, dammit. And where's the gently falling snow? I paid for that too!

If that staff member hadn't had thrown the food around the pool, there wouldn't be any monkeys around at all. And then I could see a lot of people asking for a refund of their entrance fee.

However, as a motorcycle rider, I'm glad there's no snow around!

Aaaand... I spoke too soon.

We are back on the road and climbing Mount Kusatsu-Shirane. Which happens to be the home of several ski resorts. Although it's late in the season, there are still some die-hard skiers on the slopes. We ride beneath a lift, and skiers in the chair watch us from above, their skis dangling a few meters above our helmets. So funny, this intersection of summer and winter activities!

Getting a bit nervous now, as the snow drifts pile up higher and higher on both sides of the road

There's a chalet at the summit of Mount Kusatsu-Shirane. The parking lot is jam-packed with motorcycles and sportscars!

It's a brilliant, clear day, of course people would be out for a ride! Especially with roads as twisty and winding as the ski hill roads up here!

A view of where we came from

American thunder on the hill

An S2000 car club slowly threads their way through the crowded parking lot.

The vibe up here is fantastic! We're rubbing shoulders with "our kind of people", there's a common language here and it's not Japanese! Everyone's smiling and enjoying the awesome weather and roads. It's such a great community feeling!

Descending the mountain, Neda reaches out to run her hand along the snow wall. "Is this even real?!"

The high snow walls around us remind me of the snow trenches of Hoth

What was the name of this movie again...? The one where Ewan McGregor takes his motorcycle to the snow planet. A Long Way Round Ago, in a Galaxy...

Taller snow banks await us just past the switchback, I can already see it. It looks super-tall!

This is just spectacular! Right now, I'm wondering: what kind of snow-shoveling machine is capable of doing this?!?!

Leaving the snow planet of Hoth behind us

Heading towards Mount Hakone, we see the koi wind socks flapping in the breeze

As pretty as they are, they are actually quite menacing to us, as they signify that Golden Week is imminent. We need to get off the roads and book a place to stay before the national week-long holiday begins.

In 2006, "Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift" came out, and the world was introduced to Touge. The word literally means "mountain pass", but it's also the name of a kind of street racing called drifting. Late at night, Japanese kids in highly modified cars drive up to the mountains outside of Tokyo to push their cars sideways up and down the steep and winding roads.

These cars are modified for one thing: being able to easily break traction at the rear wheel to initiate a slide. This all happens after darkness has descended onto the mountain, long after the tourist and business traffic have gone home. Into the small hours of the night, they race each other up and down the mountain. I can only imagine when their cars go sideways, taking up nearly both lanes, their headlights are pretty much useless as they only illuminate the guardrail or mountain-face in front of them.


Neda chasing down a 370Z

When we first picked up our bikes so many weeks ago, the first thing we did was head to one of those mountain passes, Mikuni. But that's not really where the scene is based. The epicentre of "Dorifto" is here, at Mount Hakone. Just do a YouTube search of "touge" and "hakone" and you can watch the high speed antics on these twisty, narrow roads. Racers will come up during the day and practice the multiple routes up and down Hakone, memorizing the different layouts and turns for when they return to race in anger after midnight.

Like most mountains in Japan, Hakone is a volcano with a caldera at its peak

We park our bikes near the lake and check out other motorcyclists enjoying the day rides up and down Mount Hakone

Man, I'm really digging that CB1300 Super Four. It's the same bike those cops were riding the other day. Too bad they don't sell them in North America.

Next to where we've parked is a pretty village overlooking the lake. It's so peaceful during the day, in stark contrast to the thundering buzz of highly tuned 4-cylinder engines rushing past it after the sun sets.

We try out a few different routes up and down Hakone. Left: The famous Tsubaki Line.
Middle: then back up through the village. Right: and then back down again to try another route

Tsubaki Line is the south-eastern road up and down the mountain. Popularized by the racing manga (and then the anime) Initial D, it's the home course of the Sidewinder team. When street racers talk about Tsubaki Line, they'll mention things like "this is the course where Takumi battled Shinji" as if they were real people and not characters in a comic book...

Initial D anime: Takuri Fujiwara vs Shinji Inui at Tsubaki Line

More Tsubaki Line goodness. We did see some fast guys on the road, but most of them save their craziness for after dark

There's a very familiar culture here. People who come to certain roads for pleasure driving obey a certain etiquette and cultivate techniques to get good runs in. Things like keeping an eye on your mirror - if someone faster comes up behind you, slow down and pull to the side to let them by. Lines of sportscars park near the bottom and the top of each route, waiting for a long enough gap in traffic so they can get a nice, uninterrupted run in.

Between runs, the drivers will congregate around their cars, check each others rides out, compare times and brag about how sideways they got. It reminds me of places like Deals Gap, where you see the same kind of driving/riding culture.

What must non-gearheads think about us, motorcyclists and sportscars burning rubber and gasoline going up and down the same road several times a day?

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